Interview with the World Champion, Honorin Hamard

Interview with the World Champion, Honorin Hamard

The 14th FAI World Championship 2015 was held from January 10 to 25 at Roldanillo, Colombia. Two French pilots win the first place podiums: Honorin Hamard and Seiko Fukuoka-Naville

Relive the highlights of the competition and find out about what it takes to become a World Champion.

So Honorin, World Champion, how does it feel?

Like my childhood dream has come true, even if I’m not very old yet, it’s been my dream, and I’ve done it! I am still on Cloud-9. It’s not really going to change anything apart from that I am now qualified for the 2017 World Championships and that I’ve obtained the legendary World Cup privilege title which enables me to participate in all competitions without having to go through the qualifyers (“AA” for life!). This may help me to find a sponsor who can pay for a whole season, but even that’s not so easy. Other than that, I haven’t changed, always ready for new adventures, and a glass of something to celebrate with you in the landing field next time!

Before leaving for Colombia did you think that you would return with the title?

I had set myself the objective of a podium. After the Superfinal and the French Championships, I knew I was on form, consistent, and that it was possible to achieve. But I was far from thinking that I would win… If someone had said that to me beforehand, I would have said “Rubbish, but thanks anyway!” I believed it was possible without really believing it, but I am a fighter and if you are patient and wait for the right time, anything can happen. I had a chance and I took it. Competition is like that – when and when not to take risks. I had some luck too but I flew well. How fantastic is that?!

How has it been for you during this lengthy competition ?

It was great actually, a good ambiance within the team, the local people very welcoming and always ready to help. The general organisation was good although some issues on the rules were and still are up for discussion. As a team, we had done a substantial amount of training beforehand, so we felt reasonably serene. We knew it was going to be long. We went to bed early every evening, we had a well-balanced diet, sufficient intake of fluids, which enabled us to stay focused for the duration of the competition. After three tasks, I was really well placed but I made a mistake on the 4th task. In hindsight, I think I had to make this mistake to stay in the game and remind myself what I was here to do. I had a small relapse, but was debriefed in a positive way by the coach on the objectives of the forthcoming tasks, and it served as a good lesson to stay focused. In the past I’ve broken down under pressure so this enabled me to push the “reset” button. During the last task, it was a case of controlling my opponents whilst I was ahead of the game with some additional points. A comfortable feeling mixed with some doubt, but general happiness, together with a final task with my heart in my mouth; “Will anyone find an illusive thermal 20metres above the deck..? No, and I am world champion!”
And with social media one feels encouraged, supported by all the French paragliding community. Not only them, but everyone, it was so nice and I would like to thank them all. It is truly motivating, a different kind of adrenalin, which enabled us as a team, to keep on going and to give it our best shot.

World champions 2015 : Honorin Hamard et Seiko Fukuoka

What was it like flying in Roldanillo?

The town of Roldanillo is at 950m altitude, situated in the west of the Cauca valley. The varied terrain alternates between mountains, hills, flatlands and fields of sugar cane. The valley gives off a lot of energy stretching some 10-15km wide, and tasks were between 50km-130km long, with a good mix of the elements.

The main launch was Los Tanques, an east facing slope some 1700m high. The tasks were set over the flatlands and the near hills of the Cordillera. What was surprising was the thermal activity, which was strong, straight up from the valley floor. Inevitably, many pilots experienced the “hang in there, we’re climbing from 20m off the deck” scenario. Here, you’ve even got fire cumulus, sugar cane fields which burn and make huge thermals which are to be avoided at all costs. Fortunately we did not have any on our flight paths on this occasion.
The climate is also surprising, often overcast in the morning and in an instant the air clears to reveal an amazing sky over the flats, even through high cirrus. So you always need to be prepared to fly even if it doesn’t look that way, or it rains, because in the space of an hour, all that can change.

Do you feel comfortable in these flying conditions?

Coming from a flatland background I think I am reasonably versatile and I love turning in small thermals, which allow you to drift with the wind, or flying the clouds and finding the source once very close to the ground. I have spent the past 4 years at St Hilaire du Touvet in the northern French alps to train in stronger conditions, pushing fast along the ridges to achieved the most efficient route, so I think I have had good all-round flatland and mountain training recently. This enabled me to get into a good position on the relief, to lead out from time to time, to predict the changes in rhythm when moving to the flatlands and to climb efficiently in the gaggles… I think that generally speaking, good training, a trusting ability to understand the gaggle, together with a little luck, all helped to regularly come in the top 10. Roldo is the kind of flying area that suits me perfectly. There could have been tasks offering lesser options of how to fly them, but in the end, there were always at least two distinct paths to take.

Similarly to Maxime, you are a pilot who doesn’t enjoy “gaggle dictation”, and being influenced by other pilot’s risk-taking decisions. Do you think that it is this mentality has aided your success?

You’re right, Maxime and I don’t like to stay with the gaggle, I like to choose my own lines, to lead out, make my own decisions and this is what I did during the 2013 season. In 2014, I started to calm down and try to find a good compromise between the two because it is vital to be consistent in order to win. It’s pointless to win one task and bomb out in the next; we all know this now. Since then we are always looking to find this consistency, the perfect compromise, and I think in this competition I found it. This enabled me to attack, to rack up some leading points, then stay controlling the lead gaggle without taking risks.
Sometimes I my natural instinct returned with a vengeance, and I had to fight it off so as not to make myself vulnerable. If I put myself in tricky position, it takes a lot for me to concentrate and not give up, to refocus. The key is the mental state which I worked on a lot and which we always has to put into perspective. It is so euphoric to find yourself in front of an entire gaggle of world championship pilots. But, as you’re up there on your own, nothing is there to stop you from dictating what happens next. This is what happened in the 9th task. One radical change earned me 60 additional points and enabled me to be in first place. It’s incredible in a competition such as this and it feels great. So yes, I think this helped me win.

Generally speaking, your overall performance in past competitions has been startling. Do you have a general strategy that you try to apply, or do you see how you feel on the day and go on your instinct ? In short, what is your secret !?

I have to say that getting a good start helped. It is the first key point to your flight and which will dictate the rest of it. A good start gives you the confidence and assurance to deal with whatever comes next…What exactly is a good start? It doesn’t necessarily mean being with the lead group, but being well placed in the first 1/3rd of the field. Your first thermal should be with the lead group and it’s from here that the game begins. If you are in the second group, you will spend the first half of the flight playing catch up. This is tiring, stressful and dangerous. If the start cylinder is in the flats, this strategy works well, but if the start is in the hills, it’s different. You have to push as much as possible in the thermic layers and fix a minimum and maximum altitude for efficient flying, whilst simultaneously thinking ahead and only stopping in big lift. This enables you to lead out and to mark the leaders without taking much risk. If conditions are difficult I would tend to stay with the group even if I see a possibility of breaking away. Or I will decide to fly at a higher altitude to gain an added advantage, but will not to let myself be influenced by other pilots. It is like a bicycle race with those who break away, some of those decisions are dangerous ones, but knowing when to go and when to hold back is crucial and challenging!

The second key point for me is the preparing for goal and the moment when you decide to go. The decision for this is sometimes made some 30km’s away. Choosing the right lines and maintaining the same altitude as your opponents is crucial. As soon as the others leave, it is already too late. For a long time I found it difficult, and continue to, because all the pilots are excited and want to win. One needs to detach oneself from this and not to allow oneself to be influenced, whilst taking in all the useful information. For example, if a pilot leaves below the rest of the group, you can review your final glide ration (eg. instead of 8, increase it to 10). If the air is buoyant, then take less of a margin…

Are you more a solo player, or one who shares with your team mates?

What I find interesting in a World or European Championship, is that we can fly as a team. We are able to communicate on the radio with our team mates which is not the case in World Cups or national championships. I admit we are a little behind compared to the Italians who communicate much more, but we are practising giving pertinent information between us and it works quite well. The Coach often gives us information on what is happening on the ground or in goal with regards to wind, the thermic cycles, and some info taken from livetracking. Between us we call out options for maximum altitudes, the average climb rates (Vz), final glide ratio to goal… For those that finish the race, the work is not over until all the team are in goal. I enjoy this team spirit.

For example, Charles (Cazaux), realised he had blown his chance of a podium, let me get ahead in one of the tasks to gain more points, or when Maxime (Pinot) during the last task gave me a little message on the radio for me to keep an eye on what was happening behind me. That is what I call being in a team. It is true that I like flying in front, but what I prefer is to fly with the team, share those moments in the air, fly and have fun together, because after all, paragliding gives us an enormous sense of pleasure.

Are you very focused or relaxed before a competition?

Before the start of the competition I am reasonably relaxed. During training I make the most of enjoying the scenery, the pleasure of flying, and I take some photos…But as soon as the competition starts, before the first task, I need to put into place my routines of preparation. I prepare my equipment in a specific order, I only listen to certain types of music and I do not let myself become influenced by the weather or other pilots. I plug in the task to my instruments, listen at briefing and often go to my wing first in order to take off early, which allows me to test the air mass and not witness some of catastrophic launches. These different stages allow me lower my adrenalin level before taking off. Once in the air, I gradually work myself up to getting a good start.

Each pilot has his own perception of the elements: what are in your opinion, the particularities that single you out from the majority of other pilots in the competition?

I can’t really say what makes me different from other pilots. I only know that I am a young dreamer with some solid ground experience and that I’ve been flying since I was very young. Like the majority of pilots, I have an inner sense which sometimes just makes all the difference. I am sensitive to the feedback from my equipment, my harness and the wing and from the “B” lines which I hold in my hands. The feedback given from the pressure allows me to know if I need to brake, turn right or left, accelerate or release the (speed) bar… I am lucky enough to have flown almost 300hrs a year in the past 5 years – an enormous amount, which has enabled me to develop my senses and apply the correct gestures as a reflex.

With competition glider performance continuously improving, are you a pilot who privileges altitude flying or leaving on glide as soon as you see an opportunity ?

Having a good wing does not change much. Sometimes you need to optimise by climbing to the top, sometimes you need to leave first, it all depends on the McCready of the day and the meteo conditions as the day moves on. If you’re not very familiar with the math, you are still left with the sensation, the intuition, the watchful eye on others… I fly rather like that. For example, if I leave a thermal early and in the next thermal the gaggle arrive 100m higher, I will maybe choose to top up more before the next time. One needs to find the ideal thermal layer and fix a limit above and below, which will mean not losing time either climbing or thermalling. The more we practice, the better we get, right from the moment we take off.
You need to ask yourself the right questions:
Has there been a change of pace just before a difficult section?
What is the approximate McCready of the day?
Do I have the wind in front of me or behind me?

What are the conditions you feel most comfortable with in order to obtain a good result ?

Generally, I like all types of conditions. You have to be an all-rounder. I love the mix of flatlands and hills, I hate it when the Meet Director is afraid to use the hills or relief in a task. In Roldo, it was varied. There is rarely an entire competition where the conditions are identical from one day to the next, and this is what is interesting, one must adapt. I can safely say that when the need to fly fast is apparent, I feel in a more advantageous position, but this can not be said each time because mistakes can happen which are harder to fix.

Can you describe some memorable moments during these last flights ?

Whilst training with Ju (Julien Wirtz) and Charles (Cazaux), we climbed up from 20metres from the ground after having glided for 15km in shade in search of some sun. We were just at the borderline between sun and shade when we felt it release. The thermal was warm and we turned in -0.10m/second. Then the thermal lifted gently and we hung there for a few metres, and luckily so, because the landing options below were few. We ended up drifting some 2km, absolutely dripping with sweat but elated! Each time I manage to climb out from so low, I am like a child with a huge grin. That I happened to share it with two friends was even better.

And again, with Ju and Charles during the same flight, we end up pretty low above a sugar cane factory, and then we get the sweetest thermal. The smell was fairly unique and one which I won’t forget in a hurry!

During task 7, I took the wrong option and found myself in the lee of the thermal, so I went back in to search low down. I was flying almost backwards behind the crest of this hill, not able to turn, so I had to continue pushing forward until I just managed to scrape my way over the top. I then had to choose a totally different route to re-join the others and I ended up finishing 4th! That was pretty amazing. The lead gaggle had got trapped in shade whilst I was still scratching around in the sun on the other side of the valley. It was proof that you just have to keep on fighting right until the end, even if you reach goal after all the others. Goal is goal, and it is always a positive experience after having worked hard.

The final glide of the last task, a stressful moment, because I didn’t really know if the others had done better, but it is a unique moment, when a thousand things go through your mind. I understand what Max felt on winning the Superfinal in September. It feels like you are on another planet. Am I champion? I even landed with the wind behind me in order to fly just a few metres further. I knew I was on the podium of the World Championships, my heart was filled with this incredible sensation and I thought of all those people who had believed that I could do it, all those who had supported me, it was just epic.

Who are the pilots you most admire?

There are a number of them who have qualities that I would indeed like to have, and I don’t have enough space to mention them all, but for example:
Luc Armant, his ability to read the sky is fascinating and his flying talent. He finds invisible lifty lines that enable him to control the gaggle, before then leaving them for dust! A smart initiative, which probably works in a variety of scenarios.

Charles Cazaux, a mind of resilience, in small thermals in the flatlands he’s a killer, he can spend hours in the air and have that extra energy left, to eek out the last thermal of the day.

Julien Wirtz, the consistency in the way he has flown these past few years is impressive, and it’s no coincidence that he is currently ranked no.1 WPRS.

Christian Maurer, capable of catching up at lightening speed after making a bad mistake. He has an attacking style and doesn’t need anyone to lead the way. His choices are surprising and often pay out in the long run.

And who are those who have contributed to your success?

I would like to thank my partners: Ozone, Altitude Eyewear, Compass, the Aeroteam flying school, the Normandy region, the Conseil Général de la Manche, the Normandy Flying League, the Archanges Club. My family and my girlfriend who have really encouraged me to continue my pursuit.
Thank you to everyone who has followed and supported me during the championships, it has been a real boost. We all tried as much as possible to share our emotions. I want to thank everyone who has been part of this achievement at every level. My father, for example, who has spent so much time in teaching me to fly. My coaches Jean-Jacques Biré, Didier Mathurin, Charles Cazaux and many others. All those who have crossed my path have all contributed to this day, and I can say that I am truly very, very happy and grateful.

What are you ambitions and project for 2015?

I am not planning on stopping here. I would like to chase the title at the World Cup Superfinal in Mexico, the European Championship title and why not a second world record! Not to mention of course, the French Championship title which has slipped through my fingers for the past 4 years and which is very special to me.
I am going to do some tandem flying and some instructing too, to carry on sharing the passion of flying with other pilots, despite my studies of Chiropody which take up a lot of my time.

Source photos : blog de Honorin Hanard – Photo de couverture : Didier Mathurin (entraîneur de l’Equipe de France)

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